Wednesday, May 07, 2008

X-Plane 9 Review

X-Plane 9, developed and published by Laminar Research.
The Good: Outstanding flight model, wide variety of aircraft, detailed topography, imports real-time weather, editing programs for custom content, lots of exported data, comprehensive system failures, multiplayer, orbital and Mars flight, flexible system requirements, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux
The Not So Good: No directed tutorials, lacks recognizable structural landmarks for full realism, scenario list could be expanded, computerized ATC voices, no flight planning
What say you? The most authentic flight simulation available is getting very close to being a full-featured game for all experience levels: 7/8

To fly! The dream of man and flightless bird alike! But since most of us are not licensed pilots, we like to simulate our dreams of flight without potentially injuring hundreds of people. Everyone is probably familiar with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series. Since 1982, it’s stood for high-end graphics and user-friendly features. But not as many people are familiar with X-Plane, now in its ninth iteration. This simulation takes a different approach: instead of drawing in users with flashy eye candy, X-Plane strives for a realistic flight model. The series has continually been closing the gap in terms of auxiliary features, and X-Plane 9 is now here with greatly enhanced scenery and a bunch of small features designed for its fanatical followers. The last version I reviewed was X-Plane 6, though I played X-Plane 8 (bought from a retail store before I resumed by reviewing duties). In any event, it's time for a new version! Will we finally have no reason to give Microsoft our hard-earned money?

The area of improvement that most people will notice in X-Plane 9 is with the scenery, and it’s quite a dramatic upgrade. There’s a reason X-Plane 9 comes on six DVDs and can take up to 80 GB of hard drive space: the amount of detail is great. I do all of my flying in the U.S., and it appears every single road in the U.S. is present in the game. Every. Single. One. This makes VFR a possibility and increases the realism of the simulation dramatically, especially for people obsessed with roads like I am. Add to that accurate terrain, auto-generated buildings, water reflections, pixel shaders, volumetric fog, and birds, and you have a very convincing environment in which to fly. X-Plane 9 does lack distinctive world landmarks, so the cities aren’t exactly like their real-life counterparts, but the geography is still very impressive. Quite honestly, actually seeing the Gateway Arch or Washington Monument is low on my scale of important features, and third-party mods add these features in anyway. I would much rather see an accurate portrayal of less-traveled areas than every single building in New York City. The plane models are generally the same as in previous versions, and you can view the action from pretty much any angle, and even zoom out (rather quickly) to a distant perspective: X-Plane 9 allows you to zoom from your airplane all the way out to a picture of the entire Earth in a smooth transition; the daylight representations are even accurate from the orbital view. X-Plane 9 also supports any screen resolution from 1024x768 to 9999x9999: pretty snazzy. It should be noted that most (if not all) of the instrument panels are designed for 1024x768, so picking anything other than a 4:3 ratio resolution will result in some stretching. While you will need a good system to crank up the settings, X-Plane 9 supports older systems by providing lower quality options. Of course, then X-Plane 9 would look more like X-Plane 8, so you really need a more modern system to enjoy the enhancements of the newer version. The sound is less impressive: although we do have accurate engine sounds and background radio chatter, the air traffic controllers still use computerized voices instead of having real people. This makes for a less believable flight, but it’s a small complaint in what otherwise is a much improved presentation.

X-Plane 9 comes on six DVD disks and contains accurate scenery (in terms of elevation, lakes, rivers, forests, cities, and roads) for the entire world. You can install everything for a cost of 80 GB, or choose your own area for flight. Installing just the continental U.S. brought the size down to about 18 GB; any areas that are not installed will be represented by ocean (I guess Al Gore was right!). X-Plane 9 is available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux (all on the same set of DVDs), so all PC users can get their fix. Not only does X-Plane 9 include the main flight simulator, but a suite of editors are also available: the plane maker (which makes planes), the airfoil maker (which makes the body of the planes), and the world editor (which edits the world). The result of these fairly easy-to-use tools is that there is a whole bunch of planes and add-on scenery available on the Internet. While the game comes with a fair number of planes (35), I was able to easily download hundreds of others from X-Plane.Org and the X-Plane Freeware Project, since planes designed for X-Plane 8 seem to work just fine if you load them and then save them in Plane Maker first. The combination of the editors and the non-scripted physics model makes X-Plane 9 a modders dream come true.

X-Plane 9 can be used for instructional purposes (and a version of it is even approved by the FAA), so the game allows you to export all of the raw data associated with simulating flight. One hundred and thirty (!) different values can be displayed on the screen, saved on a text file, or even sent over the Internet. From frame rate to fuel pressure to angular acceleration, you can know exactly what your plane is doing at all times. This is great for people who are making a custom design (or a replica of a real one) and want to see what is causing all of those crashes. Speaking of the Internet, X-Plane 9 allows you to team up with twenty others and fly around. Though there is no matchmaking from within the game (you have to manually type in IP addresses), this is still pretty cool. You can even export the instrument panel or scenery views to another computer. Seeing up a controller is fairly straightforward, though you need to know what the various settings (yaw, pitch, roll) mean to get it right. You can pilot with the mouse or keyboard, but it’s not recommended: X-Plane 9 is best enjoyed with a joystick or one of those fancy (meaning “expensive”) hardware sets with pedals and stuff.

The one feature that X-Plane 9 really lacks in an in-game instructional tutorial. There is a lengthy manual that gives directions on how to fly, but you really need to know at least a little bit what you are doing beforehand or you will become frustrated by X-Plane 9. The in-game instructions (accessed from the “about” menu) are almost laughable with their vague and deficient directions. Even though this game has been around for nine full versions, there still isn’t a comprehensive tutorial for new pilots, and that’s a very important feature to have in order to lure in novice players. One thing X-Plane 9 does have is a number of scenarios: you can take off from a aircraft carrier, fly in formation, refuel in the air, land on an oil rig, put out forest fires, and even take the helm of the space shuttle during re-entry. While the 20 scenarios are nice, we always want more and a more diverse selection would be even better.

As I mentioned earlier, X-Plane 9 includes around 35 aircraft (though plenty more are available for free) that covers all of the bases: military fighters (the F-4 Phantom), general aviation (the Cessna 172SP), gliders, commercial jets (Boeing 747), helicopters (Bell 206), large planes (the B-2 bomber and SR-71 Blackbird), radio controlled planes, sea planes, vertical take-off and landing craft, x-planes (no surprise), and the Space Shuttle. X-Plane 9 also includes the Cirrus Jet, which used X-Plane to test prototypes during development. You can customize your plane from within the game: adding additional weight in the form of fuel or payload and adjusting equipment failures (from not working to always working, including variable rates for random excitement). With all of these customizable features, you can see why X-Plane 9 is a good choice for teaching any type of situation a pilot might experience.

As I also mentioned earlier, X-Plane 9 includes Earth: all of the airports, navigational aids, mountains, rivers, roads, and cities you will find in real life. Picking a starting point is as easy as typing in an airport code or name and choosing a runway or ramp. X-Plane 9 does not include flight planning software, so you can’t choose starting and ending airports and have the game generate a realistic path for you, so getting to your destination is up to you. There is, however, third-party software designed to do this (for $30), although by this point something should be included in the simulation. X-Plane 9 also has Mars, so you can take the two planes designed for less atmosphere for a spin on the red planet (say “hi” to Arnold while you are there). You can customize your location by adding time-of-day and weather. You can track your system time or define any specific hour. The weather options are plentiful: clouds, visibility, precipitation, temperature, and wind speeds can all be customized. Or, you can have the game download the real weather. Neat.

Actually flying is where X-Plane 9 makes up for lacking certain features. The blade element theory X-Plane 9 delivers a convincing experience and allows for a large variety of aircraft to pilot. There’s no punching in values for lift and drag: your design will determine how it flies. You can see how it flies, since X-Plane 9 will visually show the flight model to you. Loading a plane in X-Plane 9 mirrors its real-life counterpart in terms of instrumentation, and since X-Plane 9 lacks tutorials, learning each of the controls can take some time. There are tool-tips if you hover your mouse above each dial and knob, but novice pilots will probably not understand how to do some of the things in the plane, such as using autopilot or ILS landings. However, flying in X-Plane 9 is a convincing experience. Taking to the skies in adverse weather conditions is an adventure: piloting a small plane in high winds results in some nausea-inducing wind shear. Interacting with air traffic controls is straightforward using the mouse to select options, and although it lacks human voices it gets the job done. Overall, I would say that X-Plane 9 is designed for slightly experienced (or above) virtual pilots who have a basic understanding of airplane operation going in, though dedicated new users can gain knowledge by reading the manual. More instruction in-game would greatly benefit X-Plane 9 as a whole and drastically reduce the learning curve associated with piloting an airplane.

X-Plane 9 takes the franchise one step close to toppling the behemoth that is Flight Simulator X. The most obvious improvement made in the 9th version of the simulation is the scenery, and the inclusion of all the roads and hills is great. If you go to the website and read most of the additions in each patch, the remainder of improvements are minimal (like an “auto-cowl-flap option”) and won’t be noticed by most people, but they are important to experienced pilots and designers. The large diversity of included aircraft can be attributed to the accommodating flight model, and the editing programs makes custom content a popular feature. X-Plane 9 doesn’t hide anything, as every single variable and value can be exported or displayed. Add in flight in space and on Mars, real weather, and support for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, and X-Plane 9 is getting quite impressive. I recommend X-Plane 9 over Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X to almost everyone. X-Plane 9 is less friendly to novice pilots since it doesn’t have a tutorial and lacks a couple of features (flight planning, ATC voices, additional scenarios) that probably should be included in the 9th version, but the flexibility of the flight physics and the much improved scenery offsets these shortcomings for those more concerned about accurate flight than seeing real casinos while flying over Las Vegas. If you want a precise and flexible flight simulation, look no further than X-Plane 9.